A walk on the wild side: zoo reveals new conservation park
ON first glance it is merely a work in progress but the sense of excitement and passion surrounding Bristol Zoo's ambitious Wild Place project is infectious.
When the "big vision" is completed the interactive conservation experience will have cost £130 million and is being described as a world first.
There will be 10 ecosystems across 136 acres where visitors can immerse themselves in a global conservation experience and see many native species supported by eye-wateringly expensive life support systems.
The family-friendly site – which will create 200 new jobs at its peak – will also have a host of other activities available on site including woodland walks, workshops and a cafe.
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But for now, apart from a few outbuildings and bustling volunteers, we do our best to imagine that vision as we are guided around by Wild Place project manager Sallie Blanks – a bubbling font of knowledge who clearly cares deeply about the site.
Sallie said: "We want to create a buzz and share this site. It's far too special not to make available."
This summer the first phase of Wild Place – over 30 acres – will open to the public at a cost of around £1 million.
It will incorporate – for now – just three ecosystems.
These will be a Madagascar village housing lemurs, pygmy goats and guinea fowl, an east African savannah with zebra and antelope, and a Congo basin featuring red river hog and okapi.
This all seems a long way away as we enter the first field in our tour which has a 1840s folly called Hollywood Tower with a clock made by London clock makers Gant & Sons – the same outfit behind Big Ben.
Here we are told to imagine people relaxing with a picnic and children running amok in a safe, enclosed environment. In fairness, despite the biting cold, you can see yourself tucking into a pork pie and can of something cold and fizzy as your four-year-old chases butterflies.
Deeper into the impressive estate there will be a chance for people to the walk barefoot on a variety of earthly materials including bark and mud to get people engaging with nature.
From there it's the visitor's car park and 'hub' with a building housing amongst other things a cafe.
It's a short walk to the expansive scrub land that will showcase the three ecosystems but while imagining zebra and antelope sweeping across the glen is difficult, the obvious potential of the site is not.
It will certainly be a pleasant walk through ancient woodland and wildflower meadows as it is.
Afterwards Sallie added: "We want to engage our guests of all ages in a positive outdoor experience.
"Our research shows that children with positive memories of being outside and having fun are much more likely to be concerned about the environment when they are older.
"This is a place of hidden treasures and we are very excited."
Bristol Zoo has owned the site for 47 years and describes it as the zoo's "back garden" which was used to house some animals, breeding and a plant nursery providing for the zoo.
When it opens to the public they hope to see around 80,000 to 100,000 people come through the door in the first year with that increasing as more facilities become available.
Although prices are yet to be finalised a family of four is likely to pay £20 with money raised going back into the project.
Director of the Bristol Zoological Society Dr Bryan Carroll said: "It's a big and very ambitious plan we are seeking finance for and we are getting some very positive noises. The conservation crisis grows and rather than wait we are taking steps now to get this project under way.
"We are very much committed to our long-term goal even in the face of a recession."